The wrong bus

July 31, 2014

This is my 250th post, and, rather than patting myself on the back about it, I thought I’d put myself in the shoes (pumps?) of a musical theatre writer starting out today. You’ve arrived in New York, where there’s a musical theatre writer for every light on Broadway. Why New York? Well, I’m happy to acknowledge that new musicals do get created elsewhere, but not with the frequency, talent pool to draw on, or stakes.

Which reminds me of the time I traveled to Chicago, with my improv troupe, and observed half a class with the legendary improv guru Del Close. He pooh-poohed the notion that improv could be done in New York or Los Angeles. “You’re going to need the freedom to fail, in order to experiment as you’ll need to. You can do that on stage here in Chicago, but in New York, it’s bound to be in the back of your mind that, on any night, there might be someone in the audience who could make your career. So you’re less likely to take risks.”

On any given night in New York, you can see a plethora of new musicals, and, I guess, that potential agent, artistic director or producer in the house raises the stakes (better be good!), while, we all know, Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine.

But now I’ve really gotten sidetracked, because I really wanted to talk about Stephen Schwartz, as a young man.

Like you, he arrived in New York after college, and, not like you, he was rather suddenly working with Bob Fosse. It bothers me a bit that Schwartz is sometimes introduced as “Composer of the phenomenally successful Wicked.” when, back in his twenties, he scored the hat trick: three of the longest-running musicals of the 1970s. Now, he did that through a combination of talent and luck, but hey, just-starting-out person, I assume you’ve a great deal of talent, too.

But let’s put talent aside for a moment, and think about the conditions that created a Stephen Schwartz so many years ago. The World of Musical Comedy (as it was then called) that launched Schwartz to stratospheric heights was markedly different from the world we live in today.

For one thing, back then there were creative producers, guys who always had an eye out for new talent. And these were individuals, not corporate entities with board rooms and shareholders to answer to. One of my heroes is Stuart Ostrow: not only did he produce Schwartz’ first Broadway show, he dedicated himself to getting new and innovative musicals on the boards. He didn’t seem to care about the track record of the creators he worked with. Another of his hits, 1776, had a score by a songwriter who had never had a musical produced, and never did again. And he also produced a Bock & Harnick show – after they’d done Fiddler on the Roof.

Schwartz & Leonard Bernstein

Another point that nobody seems to agree with: Broadway wasn’t jam-packed with revivals. It was exceedingly rare, in the early 70s, that producers put investors’ money into something audiences had seen before. They understood that this is a creative industry, at its best when it does something new. And I mean truly new: nothing like a faithful adaptation of a well-known film. “Let’s give ‘em something they’re familiar with already” wasn’t the business plan of the earlier era.

And think of Schwartz’s competition on The Street. There was a Sondheim show, a Coleman & Fields, two bombs by Galt MacDermot, a Cryer & Ford, and I’m not knocking those fine writers when I say that, as rival writers go, they’re beatable. Like how other teams look forward to playing the Mets.

Debuting in the Twenty-First Century means going up against, Sting, ABBA, Green Day, Bono and Tupac Shakur. These chart-toppers may know absolutely nothing about writing for character and propelling a story, but hell, the huge conglomerate of corporate producers that runs Broadway now is far more likely to take a chance on rockers who’ve had a huge amount of radio air-play than they are you, who might know something about the making of musicals. And let’s break this down a little. Sometimes, as with Sting, Bono and Sheryl Crow, it may be a getting-on-in-years pop superstar who’s actually sitting down and writing for the stage. Sometimes, as with Green Day, ABBA and The Who, it’s just the rock star deigning to allow their previously-written work to be presented on stage. Tupac Shakur, of course, is dead, so don’t blame him for this state of affairs.

Am I Rewriting History? …is a song that just popped into my head. It’s a collaboration between Stephen Schwartz and Steven Lutvak. And maybe I can lift this depressing post a little by mentioning Lutvak’s triumph. Amidst all the jukebox shows… Amidst the myriad ill-advised film adaptations that cynically hoped to rope in ticket-buyers who had fond memories of the movie being musicalized… Amidst all the oeuvres by past-their-prime rockers trying their hand at musical theatre for the novelty of climbing a mountain they’ve never climbed… Lutvak’s first Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder, opened last fall and blew away the competition, artistically, getting the best reviews of the season and, to no one’s surprise, the Tony Award for Best Musical. It can be done, folks. Even today where, instead of the fertile ground that produced a Schwartz, we’ve an asphalt expanse, asphyxiating new growth – lo and behold, a sprig breaks through.

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My answer is a lie

July 21, 2014

I’d say it’s time to clean up some loose ends, but what I really mean is that there are all these little jottings on my computer, and I was about to throw them out, in preparation (or avoidance!) of a big spate of songwriting I’m about to do. But they’re all about musicals, and I don’t think they’ve made it into the blog before:

I think I was having an on-line dialogue with someone who asked me about Sondheim & Weidman’s Assassins

Assassins is such an odd show it truly surprises me that anyone likes it.

Contrast abounds: Each assassin is different, Booth has an accomplice he contrasts with, argues with. Oswald has a conflict-full conversation with Booth, and eventually all the other assassins join in. Each scene is different – one might be tempted to call it a revue – and there’s a balance of comedy, seriousness, narrated or un-, monologue or dialogue; there’s even a tender love song.

The show expresses a point of view – that there’s something cancerous in the American character, our belief that any man can rise from rags to riches: this produces nuts who shoot at presidents with alarming regularity. (As you probably know, every president from 1820-1960 elected in a year ending in zero ended up dying in office.) It’s not that the politics offends me, it’s that, at the show’s end, I remain utterly unconvinced of anything. American assassins, viewed as a group (as the show does), are hardly a monolith. Some, like Booth, have real political grievances. Another shoots a president merely because he has a bad tummy ache. Sara Jane Moore – a nutty housewife. Samuel Byck – obsessed with celebrities. The point the show proves, without intending to, is that our assassins have nothing in common. No reasonable conclusion can be drawn.

Some of the jokes are funny; some are disturbingly juvenile. But none of it engaged my emotions in any way. There’s nobody to root for; it’s more like a pageant, an overly long parade of weirdo malcontents.

I imagine it’s pretty clear to long-time readers here that I’ve an unusual take on Sondheim. I admire his commitment to craft, sure, but his shows, as a whole – a lot of them truly leave me cold.

But it pissed me off, a while back, when there was an exploratory workshop involving changing one of his better shows, Company, into a piece about a gay man.

Imagine it’s 44 years ago, and I decide to write a musical about that incredibly common character, the commitment-phobic bachelor.

I might depict him having sex with different women. I might have scenes in which he considers marriage, but rejects it. I might have married friends urge him to settle down.

Bobby in Company is completely heterosexual. His refusal to commit to ONE woman is not indicative of homosexual tendencies. It proves he prefers to play the field (of women), as was true of MANY 30-something guys 44 years ago.

It amazes me that so many people can’t seem to accept the choices Sondheim and Furth made in writing a show about a straight man observing but not emulating married people.

In writing a serious musical about someone with sexual appetites, you make decisions and write it a certain way based on what that character’s sexuality is. If Bobby was bisexual, or bi-curious, or becoming a homosexual (like Finn’s Marvin), Company would be written in an utterly different way.

Frankly, it reminds me of that flaming Richard III in The Goodbye Girl.

I realize that one of my oft-sounded themes is that the audience for musicals has changed so much, it’s increasingly hard to produce shows with the sort of virtues the shows we all grew up loving had. (I don’t know what question had been posed, here -)

First, I’d say more musicals are being written today than ever before.

There are two more involved answers to your question. Let’s say, for purposes of this discussion, that there was a Golden Age, running roughly from Oklahoma to Hair and that we’re in a Current Age, running roughly since Mamma Mia.

In the Golden Age, shows were produced by individuals, such as David Merrick and Kermit Bloomgarten. They carefully shepherded projects to The Great White Way with lots of individual attention, such as choosing collaborative teams, and influencing casting. In the Current Age, shows are most often produced by huge corporations. The personnel involved may or may not be theatre people; some have no experience in theatre whatsoever. What the corporations do have are stockholders, people who are looking at the bottom line. The sort of individual attention that used to be common is quite rare today.

It is the thinking of many Current powers-that-be that the only way to make money on Broadway is to provide an audience with something they’re already familiar with: Songs they’ve heard (jukebox shows) or titles that are well-known from the movies. Often, the mega-corporation producing the adaptation already owns the rights to the screenplay they’re basing their shows on. A property (an old film) can be sitting around NOT making money for a studio, but you can eke more bucks out of it if fame from a musicalization revives interest.

The closing notices of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys have gotten people talking about why so few people bought tickets to these original and well-reviewed musicals, while Elf and The Addams Family post big numbers.

One likely hypothesis: The audience for Broadway has changed. Remember when Times Square was a scary place, filled with sketchy characters and the occasional mission doll? Neither do I. But during the Golden Age there were folks who frequently braved this dodgy area because they loved seeing original work. And it didn’t matter if the show had some unfamiliar name, like Brigadoon or Bye Bye Birdie – people went because they loved theatre, listened to theatre-loving friends and read reviews.

In the past quarter century, the theatre district has transformed itself. There are no horse players, whores or even mission dolls. 24 hours a day, feeling perfectly safe, there are tourists in Times Square, from across the country and around the world. Many tourists view coming to New York and seeing a Broadway show a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They’re less likely to take a risk on something they haven’t heard of. Unlike the metropolitan theatre-lovers described in the last paragraph, they’re not likely to have read reviews, or even to know other people who’ve seen a Broadway show. They don’t go on recommendations; they do go on (in a phrase from an Eddie Murphy movie) The Name You Know.

Of course, these are generalizations. We all know some out-of-towners who do inform themselves about theatre. But I doubt anyone will deny that the Current Age audience differs from the Golden Age audience in knowledge, review-reading, and the need for the familiar.

I do know what question I was responding to here. Someone asked why Ghost, a show that was a widely-panned financial flop on Broadway was on a national tour (cast by my wife – but that’s neither here nor there).

Here’s the deal: If you’re selling tickets to people who don’t read reviews, then the show based on that movie you liked (Ghost, e.g.) will outsell the show critics loved (such as A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder) every time; quality is immaterial.

Too depressing a thought to leave you with? Sorry: Just cleaning out the sad crap from the computer, and the chips fall where they may. I will report (and I hope this cheers you) that my step back from the self-imposed discipline of coming up with a new essay here every five or six days has led to markedly improved productivity on the new musical. And, as you can tell, I didn’t expend a lot of time writing this entry. If I had, I’d certainly come up with a less Business Jargon-y phrase than “markedly improved productivity.” Good tunes, man!


Spoon

July 16, 2014

Two talented ladies I knew at the dawn of their careers are involved in the staging of Pump Boys and Dinettes at City Center. But before saying word one about them, I have to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the last part of that sentence: Pump Boys and Dinettes at City Center. City Center is a huge auditorium, larger than any Broadway theatre. Pump Boys and Dinettes is a small-cast revue, too small for any current Broadway Theatre, and so the Encores Summer “Off-Center” series, with its goal of reminding us of the virtues of rarely-produced off-Broadway musicals, is presenting another minuscule peg in an impossibly enormous hole.

Mission statements tend to be more bendable and flimsy than the paper they’re no longer written on. And that’s fine. Pump Boys and Dinettes concludes the second warm-weather trio curated by Jeanine Tesori, quite possibly the greatest composer of musicals currently producing. I can’t say enough about her as an artist, as a person, as my musical director on The New U. but as an impresario – well, I’m kind of stuck, still, on that phrase, Pump Boys and Dinettes at City Center. The winter trio Encores has put on for more than 20 years has always made sense to me: Big Broadway musicals that New York hasn’t seen for some time rendered with a sizable orchestra on-stage in a house used to seeing revivals of large shows. The summer Summer “Off-Center” shows have been an odd bunch, each burdened with the unsolvable problem of filling the gargantuan former temple.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, last summer, fit that mission: a huge off-Broadway hit in its day, never revived since. Tesori’s own masterpiece, Violet, was deemed so wonderful, it transferred to Broadway, where it had never previously been. So, two for two. But the choice to do The Cradle Will Rock, a Broadway musical produced at a time when there was nothing called off-Broadway – I’m not sure what the point was supposed to be. I mean, on paper, it’s an interesting show, a relic of the edgy political theatre of the 1930s. At Encores, casting mistakes were made, and the staging failed to echo the verve of eighty years ago. It just seemed rather odd.

This summer we had Tick Tick…Boom, a hardly forgotten off-Broadway musical from 2001: it gets a fair quantity of productions around the country. The cast of three was filled with major stars, which is the sort of thing that happens at Encores and nowhere else. They were able to carve two weeks out of their schedules. Commercial shows all require a much longer commitment. So, good to be in the presence of Stars You Wanna See, but boy, did that little show seemed dwarfed by the cathedral with two balconies it was presented in. I was out-of-town for their one-night presentation of Faust, but can comment, sight unseen, that this was a total abrogation of that mission statement. Faust is a musical that never made it to New York. It was not conceived us as an off-Broadway musical. Despite bringing on David Mamet to fix the book, its regional reception was disastrous, and that’s why it never made it to New York. Now, it’s a show I’ve long wanted to see, but I still can’t fathom the justification for doing it.

Which brings us to Pump Boys and Dinettes. Like many a musical from the 1980s, it started life off-Broadway, and sold enough tickets to engender a move to Broadway, where it played for quite some time. Or at least that’s what the Encores Off-Center folks would have you believe. In reality, this was a cabaret act: a group of six performers wrote their own country songs, and so many of these had to do with waiting tables or pumping gas that they assumed characters, and that descriptive title. Three decades ago, there weren’t all that many places you could hear original country music in New York, and there were certainly enough transplanted southerners (may I call them “ex-pats?”) to make up a steady audience for the act. The two women in the group, Debra Monk and Cass Morgan, both went on to substantial careers performing in musicals (the men did not) and in fact essayed the same role – the nosy neighbor – in the film and musical versions of The Bridges of Madison County. Some producer got the bright idea to book the act into the Times Square cabaret formerly known as Latin Quarter. As luck would have it, Broadway powers-that-be allowed this to be considered a Broadway show for the sake of 1982’s Tony nominations. Pump Boys and Dinettes got a nod, but this was merely to avoid having to fill out the category with a long-closed bomb like Marlowe, The First or Merrily We Roll Along. The other nominees are now considered classics: Nine (which won), Dreamgirls (which assumed it was going to win) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (a new production of which, cast by my wife, is now touring the country). One imagines Pump Boys came a distant fourth in the voting.

Mamie Parris, who was the ingénue in my musical comedy, Area 51, and Hunter Foster (late of The Bridges of Madison County) head up the cast at City Center. I’ve gone into detail about the show’s history because it must have been rather novel to walk into a cabaret space 33 years ago and see singers playing their own instruments. Today, that’s an overplayed cliché. The songs are pleasant, not without humor, but, the moment you, as an audience member, are paying more than the usual two-drink minimum, you expect something more than a mildly-entertaining evening. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s not that it’s not well-done, but what it is certainly isn’t a musical. And what might have been cute in a small space is, at City Center, as out of place as a plain country bumpkin at a prince’s ball.

One concept I’ve found myself restating quite a bit is that writers need to take into consideration the venue their show’s going to be performed in, what kind of audience they’ll get, and what that audience expects for its entertainment dollar. John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann may have done just that and succeeded admirably, but boy are they put in a horrible light here.


Let me out

July 6, 2014

The time has come, dear friends, for me to suspend weekly additions to this blog. I’ve always worried that jotting down these musings would eat up time that I’d otherwise be spending writing musicals, and it seems the tipping point has been reached. Six months ago, I set myself a deadline for completing a draft of a show, and it’s still not anywhere close to cooked. When I ask myself why, I answer, “I haven’t had the time” and yet I’ve had the time to put up a new entry here every five or six days. What’s wrong with this picture?

This is my 247th post, and the average length is 1000 words. So, from one perspective, I’ve written an entire book on musical theatre writing – a rather long one, in fact – with over 500 illustrations. When you click those, you’re led to a new window – usually a video, sometimes an audio: those are my Easter Eggs. For anyone who misses regular new posts, I suggest you go back and read some old posts. I started this in the fall of 2010, and I doubt anyone remembers them so well that a re-read would produce any déjà vu. I realize that there’s no organization to these musings – in this the blog is very much unlike a book. I’m not too good with the tagging/filed under thing. What happens is, every week, I’m inspired to muse on a different topic. Sometimes, it’s a review of a show I’ve seen. Sometimes, I’m rehearsing something that will provoke a post. When my shows are produced, it’s prime time to say something about the process that led to their creation. And I try to acknowledge the major anniversaries of my fourteen shows, as well as the deaths of my heroes. Which makes me think I’ll come back on with obituaries – so many of my favorite musical theatre writers are well beyond 80 – but that’s not a pleasant thought, a pleasurable way to use this blog.

For a long time, I’ve followed conversations about musicals on-line. It’s likely one of those will be on a topic I’ve already commented on, so, instead of creating a comment, I might simply post a link. And there’s a certain amount of blog maintenance I’ll continue to do. Links and, often, images, go “dead” because the site originally posting the content has evaporated. Here in my sixth month living in the suburbs, father of a precocious two-year-old, I find I can’t make it to the theatre nearly as often as I once could. And the new musicals I see, even readings, are likely to inspire posts. But that brings up a different existential issue:

Have I said it all? Have I jotted down everything I can think of to say about how musicals are made? I’m limited in what I can say here in two basic ways: One has to do with music theory. You readers may know a lot about the subject, or next-to-nothing. If I go into too much detail about chord sequences, accompaniment figures, orchestration and the like, I’m likely to lose you. I actually think of myself as someone who knows far too little about theory myself; when I post about music, I can hear the clucking tongues of the many who know more.

The other has to do with naming names. Some writers write badly. Some musical theatre people do bad things. From time to time, I’ve been treated fairly shabbily by some of the most famous names in our business. But I’m constrained: I don’t want to use a public forum to badmouth folks, even if they deserve it. And you never know who you’ll end up working with tomorrow, or who your wife will. There are stories you’ll tell to a trusted friend that you just don’t tell to you, the anonymous masses who read this blog. I’m reminded that someone I worked very closely with died and I thought I’d write up a couple of my favorite stories about him. They’re very funny stories, but they don’t show the deceased in a positive light. Now I’ve gotten closer to a relative of his, and a portrait of the late-but-not-so-great, well, it never seems like the right time to put that up.

But you never know. This isn’t goodbye. You never know when I’ll feel an unbeatable compulsion to write about something here. You just can’t look forward to the stalwart regularity I’ve stuck to for over two and a half years. Until we meet again!